A Tokyo Romance by Ian Buruma review – shaped by Japan | Autobiography and memoir

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The writer, historian and recently appointed editor of the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma, “grew up with two cultures”. His father was a lapsed Dutch Protestant and his mother British, from an Anglo-German Jewish family: “My destiny was to be half in, half out – of almost anything.” He dreamed of escaping from the safe and dull cocoon of his upper-middle-class childhood in The Hague, and the opportunity to study in Tokyo on a scholarship provided the perfect way out.

Buruma arrived in Tokyo in 1975, aged 23. For some time he wandered around in a daze, overwhelmed by its “theatrical, even hallucinatory” brashness that made even Los Angeles seem “staid”. Although he quickly tired of his film course, he immersed himself in the Japanese imagination and in this memoir of his years in Japan he writes with real passion about Japanese film and the avant-garde theatre of the time.

From the “three greats” of Japanese cinema – Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa – to yakuza and roman porno (porno romance) films, Buruma found “a rare honesty” about the darker human impulses in the films he saw. Nagisa Oshima’s controversial pornographic art film In the Realm of the Senses (1976) was “a cinematic blow for sexual freedom, especially for women”. Though he struggled initially, Buruma acted in productions by Akaji Maro and Juro Kara – whose surreal, earthy collages of Japanese life were full of slapstick humour, but also what Buruma describes as typically “outlandish” aspects of the culture: the ero, guro and nansensu – the erotic, the grotesque and the absurd.

Buruma offers a memorably evocative account of cultural life in 70s Tokyo, illustrated with his striking photography (“the perfect art for a voyeur dancing around the fringes”), and rich with wryly humorous anecdotes about the people he met, as well as the joys and pitfalls of being a stranger in a strange land. After six years in this insular country he was forced to accept that even though he spoke the language and followed the local customs, he would always be a gaijin (literally, an “outside person”).

For Buruma the realisation that he no longer had to conform was liberating. When he returned to Europe, he brought this “radical autonomy” with him and concludes: “Japan shaped me”.

• A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir is published by Atlantic. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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Source: The Guardian
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| Autobiography and memoir

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